Written by Dwight Bachman
Willimantic, Conn: -- The U.S. Department of Labor says that nearly 50 percent of the nation's unemployed youth ages 16-21 are functionally illiterate, with virtually no prospects of obtaining good jobs. The department estimates that the cost of illiteracy to businesses and taxpayers is at least $225 billion a year.
To help youth participate more fully in society and the workplace, Eastern Connecticut State University has joined 78 other not-for-profit institutions and organizations nationwide in an effort to restore reading to the center of American culture. The Big Read Project, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), seeks to enhance literacy abilities by raising public awareness of reading.
Eastern received a $14,900 Big Read grant to foster an appreciation of quality literature among area young adults, college and high school students, especially reluctant readers. To carry out this community-wide program, the University is involving libraries, public schools, local and state officials, all of who will engage in discussions, lectures, public readings and theatrical performances.
"Reading is perhaps the most fundamental academic skill we can give young people, for without reading, you cannot work on any other academic subject," said Eastern President Elsa Núñez. " Reading is not only the key to our intellectual development and career success, literature provides a richness of experience and perception that brings a much larger world to us than we are capable of experiencing on our own. Through literature, we learn about and connect with people from other lands; we explore worlds of imagination; we experience relief from our daily routines; and we create opportunities to share these new worlds with others."
Ira Silverberg, the NEA's director of literature, said, "Whether you're reading a used paperback or a downloaded novel on an e-reader, nothing can beat the experience of getting lost in a good book. I look forward to seeing the creative ways these 78 organizations will use The Big Read to promote reading within their communities."
Eastern's intent in writing its grant proposal was to focus on English language learners in Willimantic, which has a large Latino population. A recent Hartford Courant report showed that 40 percent of Willimantic's 17,737 people are Hispanic or Latino, and that more than 60 percent of the student body in Willimantic's public school system is Hispanic. A third of Windham students come from homes where English is not the primary language.
Hope Marie Cook, associate librarian and coordinator of Eastern's Big Read program, wrote the award-winning grant proposal. She said it reflects the goals of the University's Strategic Plan, which specifically engages students, faculty and staff in service to community. "Patrons of libraries in Windham County and Willimantic, along with community members, have a deep appreciation for, and interest in, the cultural beauty of the Hispanic population, its history, values, beliefs and literature."
Cook said Eastern and the surrounding community is responding enthusiastically to the selection of the Big Read book, "Sun, Stone and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories" because of its rich cultural beauty, relevancy and programming flexibility. The NEA says the book, edited by Jorge Hernandez, "represents a sample of some of the most important writers of Hispanic American literature." University students, faculty and staff, along with area public school teachers and educators, will include the book in lesson plans and discussions. Eastern's library staff, along with area libraries, coffee houses and even laundry facilities in Windham County, are participating in the local Big Read Project.
People at 17 locations have planned theatrical readings, discussions, band performances, movies, exhibitions and an interactive video conference. Some locations include Eastern's Student Center; Quinebaug Valley Community College; Willimantic's Regional Magnet School at the Capital Theatre; Guilford Smith Memorial Library in Windham; and Scotland Public Library. For a complete listing of specific programs, visit: www.easternct.edu/universityrelations/bigRead.html.
A "Stop, Drop and Read" campaign has also been set up and will take place at various locations in Willimantic and surrounding areas. The strategic placement of plastic bins that contain two copies of "Sun, Stone and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories" and free materials to support the book selection, will be found in agencies and businesses where individuals may have to wait for service and consequently, have the time to read the stories found in this classic piece of literature.
Prior to the project's kick-off on Sept. 18, the University is presenting a Teaching Excellence Seminar on Sept. 13 at 12:30 p.m. in the President's Dining Room in Hurley Hall to explain its involvement in the Big Read Project. The presentation will focus on the book selected, the partnerships that were created, and the events that will take place to support the three-month long program. Persons attending the teaching excellence seminar are asked to bring a non-perishable food item to be donated to the local food bank.
Eastern's Big Read Kickoff takes place on Sept. 18 at 2 p. m. in the Betty R. Tipton Room of the University's Student Center and will feature Eastern President Elsa Núñez; Patricia Banach, director of library services at Eastern; Ann Anderberg, assistant professor of education at Eastern; Lucy Ferriss, Writer-in-Residence at Trinity College; and Denise Merrill, Connecticut Secretary of the State.
Speakers will discuss the latest research on why literacy matters; their own literary histories; and how learning to read has influenced their career paths. Persons attending the kick-off are asked to bring a non-perishable food item to donate to the local food bank.